As the 50th anniversary of the treaty for the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons approaches in 2020, the global nuclear order is more divisive and challenging. These challenges include continued nuclear testing by North Korea, threatening a nuclear confrontation against the United States and its East Asian allies as well as US President Donald Trump’s skepticism about the Iran nuclear deal.
Moreover, a most significant challenge has been the issue of lack of progress with regard to the nuclear weapons states commitment to Article VI of the NPT, ie, their obligation to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament”.
On the contrary, the trends show that the US and Russia are actively engaged in building new types of nuclear delivery systems, reviving old types and are expanding their budget for the nuclear weapons spending. With the US Nuclear Posture Review claiming to develop low-yield nuclear weapons for its submarines, demonstrating a tendency to propagate an overreliance on use of these weapons to that of the Russian acquisition of the ‘invincible’ nuclear missile that can defy the US missile defences; the volatility of the global nuclear order is manifested in increasing the arms races, less reliance on multilateralism and pervasive strategic competition.
In South Asia, the irrationality of this competition is manifested through inducing strategic instability; by the US and Western powers, through transferring destabilising strategic offensive technologies and conventional arms sales to India. The impetus to it being provided by the growing Indian economic market. Ranging from deals on conventional weaponry to that of trade of strategic dual-use technologies, all are part of the ‘grand bargain’ in South Asia struck mainly under the US auspices. The main objective of which is to prop up India against a rising China, which is challenging US dominance in the Indo-Pacific region.
In this context, the United States has made every possible diplomatic effort to bring India in the nuclear mainstream by promising membership of the multilateral export control regimes that regulate the export of items relating to nuclear dual-use, chemical, missile technology as well as conventional weaponry. The effort is already returning benefits, with India becoming a member of three of the four multilateral export control regimes, ie, Missile Technology Regime (MTCR), Australia Group (AG), and Wassenaar Arrangement (WA). The main hurdle in the way of India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a voluntary arrangement among 48 states to regulate the export of nuclear and related dual-use technologies, is China. China’s position is pretty clear: India should not be made an exception yet again but the group should discuss rules for expanding the membership of the group to non-NPT nuclear weapon states and develop uniform membership criteria.
What are the possible implications of Indian membership in these cartels for South Asian security? Much of the implications have started to trickle in already. Owing to its membership of MTCR, India has started testing extended ranges of missiles like Brahmos that it has jointly manufactured with Russia. Moreover, the membership of MTCR opens the door for dual-use space technologies for India that have military spin-offs (for instance, missile technology, etc). The membership of WA for a state that is globally revisionist and seeks to establish an international order favourable to it apart from seeking to retain the status quo regionally through use of force against neighbours with which it has disputed territories, says a lot about this organised hypocrisy. On a different plane, these transfer of modern military hardware and technologies as well as repeated exceptions for India also disincentivises New Delhi to engage in efforts to establish Strategic Restraint Regime whereas Pakistan has repeatedly been calling for such a regime in South Asia for durable security architecture in the region.
The cosying up of the United States with India would make conflict more likely in Asia as claimed by experts in the recent India-China border tensions. During the recent Dokhlam conflict, analysts were of the view that the US would get involved in such a conflict between India and China. Mohan Malik, professor of Asia-Pacific Centre for Security in Honolulu, stated that “should the ongoing push and shove turn into a hot war, Washington is expected to provide logistical, intelligence and material support to India’s military. It might even dispatch an aircraft carrier and submarines to the Indian Ocean to monitor and deter Chinese naval assets.” Moreover, the pledges and reassurances from the US to India that “security issues that concern India are concerns of the United States and…the world’s two greatest democracies should have the world’s two greatest militaries”, would make the security competition intense, and bring Pakistan closer to China and Russia in terms of defence and security cooperation. This situation portends a more divisive regional security architecture, one that would be based on enhanced security competition and security dilemma.
With the nuclear weapons regaining their centrality in international affairs and with possible proliferation cascades falling in East Asia, a nuclear order that fails to reflect the realities of the twenty-first century and does not include the outliers uniformly apart from doing away with the organised hypocrisy will weaken the global nonproliferation regime, increase dangers of conflicts and enhance nuclear competition.
There are no easy answers to dampen this nuclear competition and strengthen the nuclear order. However, a dialogue among the global nuclear powers on stabilising this transformation in the nuclear order could lead to defining some rules of engagement. This appears difficult as the geopolitical trends are becoming a hindrance in the way of development of an inclusive and multilateral nuclear order regionally as well as globally.
This article published in The Express Tribune, April 22nd, 2018.
Saima Aman Sial is working as a Senior Research Fellow and expert in strategic issues at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS), Islamabad. She is a former Nonproliferation Fellow the Center for Nonproliferation Studies and Sandia National Laboratories.